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A pivotal moment in health and the arts

Tim Joss’s introduction to the first national Arts in Health Conference & Showcase

We are at a pivotal moment for health and the arts. This country is blessed with two highly developed, world class sectors. Each faces service and financial challenges, and a cool look at the relationship between the two reveals misperceptions, limited connections and few innovations on the road to operating at scale. And yet there is abundant potential for the arts to contribute to health improvement, supported by an arts, health and wellbeing movement which has opened a new dynamic chapter in recent years.

What makes Aesop’s conference and showcase different from other arts and health events is the conscious focus on attracting and engaging health decision-makers and patient group representatives. Also, in preparing the programme, we have searched particularly for work which is of high quality both in artistic and health terms. Health outcomes and artistic outcomes are different, of course. Artists and health professionals have different skill sets. But when both are in harmony the results can be magical and transformative.

Aesop’s goal is to facilitate this harmony and grasp this pivotal moment. It creates and incubates high quality, sustainable arts enterprises with a social purpose, designed to deliver artistic and social impact and grow. It also helps to build and share knowledge.

Aesop, the College of Medicine and NHS Alliance see today’s event as the start of a new conversation between health and arts organisations. The common purpose is to harness the arts’ physical, expressive, sociable, celebratory and other powers to achieve better health outcomes, health workforce and environment improvements, and health savings.

The first spark came two years ago. arts organisations already commissioned by health or social care. The group wanted to learn about the evolving clinical commissioning landscape, and was joined by Dr Michael Dixon, then President of NHS Clinical Commissioners. The arts activities represented so impressed Michael that he suggested the health and arts worlds collaborate on presenting a showcase. Today is the result.

At the heart of the day are ‘taster’ introductions to 24 arts in health programmes. Sixty-five proposals were received, and the final 24 were selected by representatives of the NHS Alliance, the College of Medicine, Southbank Centre and Aesop. Each ‘taster’ features a programme description and the perspectives of three key players: the patient or service user, the arts organisation and the partner health-professional who believes in the programme.

One example is Aesop’s Dance to Health. It addresses challenges faced by falls prevention services and aims to achieve health, artistic and social benefits for older people, plus health savings.

The tasters are framed by opening and closing plenaries. We begin by opening a window on some of the best arts in health activity in England today. These are interspersed by conversations between the day’s facilitator, science writer and broadcaster Vivienne Parry, and senior figures in health and the arts. We close with an audience discussion of what next, and two launches. One is of an arts in health evaluation guide commissioned by Public Health England and created by Aesop and Professor Norma Daykin – the first of its kind; the second is a new website for matching health decision-makers with arts in health programmes. A performance of combined Singing for Breathing Choirs draws the day to a close.

Without the support of our partners, this day would never have been possible. We are immensely grateful to all of them: Arts Council England, College of Medicine,  Commissioning Journal, Cultural Commissioning Programme, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, Local Government Association, Independent Age, NHS Alliance, Public Health England, Royal Society for Public Health Arts, Health and Wellbeing Special Interest Group, Sidney de Haan Research Centre for Arts & Health and Southbank Centre.